John Byron Nelson was perhaps the most dominant golfer of his era.

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Born on a 160-acre cotton farm outside Waxahachie, Texas, on this date in 1912, Nelson was the first of three golf legends to enter the world less than seven months apart, with Sam Snead and Ben Hogan coming along in May and August, respectively.  When Nelson was 11, his family moved to Fort Worth.  One year later, he joined Hogan as a caddy at Glen Garden Country Club and soon took up golf, shooting 118 using borrowed clubs in the first round he played.  In 1927, Hogan and Nelson squared off in Glen Garden’s Caddy Championship, where Nelson holed a long putt on the ninth hole to tie and send the match to a nine-hole playoff. Nelson eventually prevailed by one stroke.  Nelson dropped out of school in tenth grade to take a job as a file clerk with the Fort Worth & Denver city railway, was laid off due to the Great Depression, and turned pro at 20, later saying, “If it hadn’t been for the Depression, I’d probably be just a retired railroad worker.”  Two years later, he returned to Texas winless and broke, moved back in with his parents, and accepted a job as head pro at Texarkana Country Club for $ 60 per month.  After wins a handful of wins between 1934 and 1936, the 25 year-old Byron Nelson broke through by winning the 1937 Masters by two shots over Ralph Guldahl.  Later that year, he played in the Ryder Cup before going on to claim the 1939 U.S. Open, 1940 PGA Championship and a second Masters in 1942.

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Byron Nelson had the single greatest year in the history of golf in 1945, winning 18 of the 30 tournaments he entered, including 11 in a row—a record that will never be broken.  “Lord Byron” opened the year by winning the Phoenix Open.  He added two more victories before arriving in Miami in early March, where he won the Four-Ball Championship.  Over the following four-and-a-half months, Nelson won every event he entered—including a nine-shot win in Atlanta and ten-shot victory in Montreal—to claim 11 straight titles.  He finished second in seven events, shot 19 consecutive rounds in the 60s, led the Tour with a 68.33 scoring average and posted a final-round average was 67.45.  He won the PGA Championship—the only major contested that year due to World War II, shot 320 under par for the season and his average margin of victory was more than six strokes.  Tiger Woods called it “one of the greatest years in the history of the sport.”  Nelson set records for lowest round [62] and aggregate score [259], marks that stood for over a decade.  From 1944 to the end of the 1946 season, Mr. Nelson won 34 times, was second 16 times and had 113 consecutive top-twenty finishes.  In both 1944 and 1945, he won money titles and was named AP Male Athlete of the Year.  Having earned enough money to buy his dream ranch and, citing fatigue, Nelson retired from the tour following the 1946 season.  “I got so sick when the streak was over.  I don’t know.  It did something to me.  I didn’t care for it [touring] anymore.”

WATSON NELSON

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Augusta National Archive

 

Mr. Nelson won five major championships and undoubtedly would have captured several more had not fourteen majors been cancelled between 1940 and 1945 due to World War II while he was in his prime.  He won 52 times on tour, seventh-most of all time, despite retiring from touring at age 34.  Arnold Palmer, who grew up idolizing Nelson said, “Bryon Nelson accomplished things on the pro tour that have never been and never will be approached.”  His action is the basis for the modern golf swing, incorporating the large muscles in the hips and legs as a more powerful and reliable method than the wristy method employed during the era before him.  Jack Nicklaus wrote that Nelson was “the straightest golfer that he ever saw” and the USGA named the robot they use for testing golf equipment the “Iron Byron” in honor of the consistency of his swing.  Nelson was one of the greatest and most beloved golfers in history and his streak of 11 wins in a row is a sporting record that will never be matched.  In 1974, he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame and won the Bob Jones Award, the USGA’s highest honor.  In 1997, he won the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2006 was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.  Following his retirement, Nelson mentored future stars Ken Venturi and Tom Watson, served as a golf analyst for ABC Sports and, in 1968, became the first golfer to lend his name to a tournament, the Dallas-based Byron Nelson Championship.

“You can always argue who was the greatest player, but Byron Nelson is the finest gentleman the game has ever known.”


– Ken Venturi, 1964 U.S. Open Champion and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame

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